November 26, 2018
Road trips, such as the ones I took as a kid, were often marred by breakdowns, but now chemistry has brought us new materials that make cars—and other forms of transportation—much more reliable. Yesterday’s cumbersome clothing and gear are now lighter, more capable, and more comfortable. Just about every part of vacationing is better now—except for airplane legroom—and it’s all because of chemistry.
Chemistry has even made a difference when it comes to poolside fun. Splashing around in the water would seem to be awfully low-tech recreation. But were it not for the materials revolution, you’d still be hiking up your wool swimsuit when you got out of the water.
Chlorine, meanwhile, prevents pool water from breeding disease. That’s nothing new—the chemical’s been used this way for over a hundred years. There have been some big changes, though, in how we produce it. Chlorine is isolated from brine via the chlor-alkali process, which also produces sodium hydroxide, or caustic lye. This process used to eat up lots of energy and involved some dangerous materials, like asbestos and mercury. These days, Nafion™ ion-selective membranes make the whole procedure significantly safer and more energy efficient.
That same chlorine that keeps us healthy in the pool also helps safeguard our drinking water. Well-chlorinated water can mean the difference between a great vacation and one spent at pit stops battling stomach cramps. Caustic lye—the other product of the chlor-alkali process—also makes our vacations better. It plays a large role in food preparation, including giving pretzels their distinctive taste, improving the texture of ice cream, and making chocolate so delicious.
And when it comes to getting you to your destination, Nafion™ will soon play a greater role there too. While mainstream fuel-cell vehicles are still some years off, their power packs will depend on Nafion™ to turn hydrogen into the electricity that powers the wheels. And if you currently drive an electric vehicle, know that you may soon be charging it using large fluid batteries with Nafion™ membranes.
But don’t think about any of this on vacation. I certainly don’t. However, I do give Nafion™ a quiet thank-you whenever I find myself poolside at a resort, indulging in some chocolate or ice cream.
This content was featured in the Chemical & Engineering News 11/26/18 issue.